Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Hoang le Nhat Thong Chi and Historiography of Late Eighteenth-Century Dai Viet

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Hoang le Nhat Thong Chi and Historiography of Late Eighteenth-Century Dai Viet

Article excerpt

It is nearly impossible to write the history of late eighteenth-century Vietnam (Dai Viet) without making use of the Hoang Le nhat thong chi (The unification record of the Imperial Le, HLNTC). This text, in all likelihood a collaborative effort by members of the Ngo Thi family, a prominent northern literary lineage, may be the single most important contemporary source concerning the political and military events in the Northern Vietnamese kingdom of Dang Ngoai after 1786. It was during this critically important era that the Vietnamese territories were once again brought under unified political authority, after more than 150 years during which the realm was divided between the Nguyen family governing the southern Dang Trong region, and the Trinh family ruling in the Dang Ngoai realm in the North. This is a text whose value has long been recognized by Vietnamese historians, and which has, I will argue, profoundly shaped all subsequent historiography of this period. (1) In particular, the HLNTC is indispensable for writing the history of the Tay So'n uprising (1771-1802) and its intrusion from Dang Trong into the northern Vietnamese territories. While a valuable historical chronicle, the HLNTC is also a dramatic text, one that Alexander Woodside has called 'a stunningly vivid Vietnamese historical chronicle ... which reproduces the alleged conversations of the real people of this era and unsparingly describes the characters of a crowded cast of Vietnamese historical actors, almost with the artistic power of a novel by Stendhal'. (2) This drama has not been lost on the Vietnamese public, which has enjoyed the work in numerous quoc ngu (Romanized Vietnamese) translations since the first, by Cat Thanh, appeared in Ha Noi in 1912. (3)

This article is a preliminary examination of this significant historical text and of its role in shaping Vietnamese historiography concerning the eighteenth century. After providing an overview of the text's content, I examine the ongoing debates concerning the HLNTCs authorship, as well as the questions about its literary genre. I argue that the HLNTC quickly emerged as an indispensable source for writing on the Tay So'n period, and that already by the first half of the nineteenth century both official and unofficial historical accounts of the late eighteenth century relied on it extensively. I further suggest that its importance only increased over the course of the twentieth century, with the HLNTC emerging as an Ur-text for histories of this period, providing what has become the standard historical narrative of events in late eighteenth-century Dai Viet and particularly its northern regions.

Content of the Hoang Le nhat thong chi

The Hoang Le nhat thong chi is chiefly a chronicle of events in and around Thang Long (present-day Ha Noi), the capital of the northern kingdom, in the period from 1768 to 1802. While it also contains lengthy descriptions of the deposed Le Emperor Chieu Thong's life in Chinese exile after 1789, and brief descriptions of Tay So'n actions in the Phu Xuan (Hue) and Qui Nho'n areas in Dang Trong, the text's focus is on events in the northern Vietnamese territories. More specifically, it is a careful delineation of the political struggles between two main groups: those loyal to the politically crippled Le Emperor and those supporting the noble Trinh family, which had since the middle of the sixteenth century controlled the imperial throne. What had been a situation of relative stability for several centuries devolved into a complicated contestation for political supremacy in the 1770s and 1780s, a situation exacerbated by the rise of the Tay So'n armies in Dang Trong and their eventual attack into the Dang Ngoai region in the summer of 1786 after years of fighting the Nguyen.

While broadly chronological, the text occasionally shifts time and place, particularly in its early sections, when after initially describing events of the early 1780s, it jumps back to the 1760s to describe the background of the relationship between the northern Lord (Chua) Trinh Sam (1739-82) and a particularly talented and ambitious Le crown prince, whom Sam arranged to have killed. …

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